Bucknell University Press ($19.95)
by Lynnell Edwards
Floyd Skloot's third full-length collection of poetry reveals him again as a poet of strong narrative and formal command, best when imaging the myth and history of the almost modern artists and aristocracy of the 19th and early 20th century. The Fiddler's Trance opens with a commanding vision of Rasputin, appearing in the darkness of night dreams to the author, who after long illness finds himself "staring out the window at moonlit oaks" and sees Rasputin's beard "ruffle in a swirl of wind." It is a breathless beginning, a first sentence that runs nineteen lines long, punctuated with internal and occasional end rhyme, and perfectly managed stanza breaks. Ostensibly a muse, Rasputin is the first of a pageant of characters that make up the collection's strongest poems, including Odilon Redon, Sigmund Freud, Tsar Nikolas of Russia who "has been haunting the woods / all week," Juan Gris, and Robert Frost—who appears, like Rasputin, in the dark hours before dawn.
In these portraits, Skloot is at his best: wielding a tight control over the narrative line, masterfully capturing the cadence and the idiom of human speech, using the occasional stunning image to draw the scene, but always and most importantly telling a story. "Frost," arguably the strongest of the narrative poems, relies on humor as the poet converses with his poetic mentor in this surreal yet daylight clear exchange: "He leads me straight uphill. Baroque. / Folk. Roanoke. 'Awoke,' I say and he / stops dead to let me know who makes the rules." Here is a Frost we haven't quite imagined before. Still stronger in its story is the amazing "Behind Gershwin's Eyes," with short lines that run as breathless and sure as "Rhapsody in Blue" and detail the debilitating effects of a tumor on the composer's right temporal lobe. The final stunning stanza brings together the confusion of senses and the loss of reality in the artist's mind:
A blade of light
where the drawn shades
meet. Roses without odor,
icewater leaping from its cut
glass goblet, eyes leached
of luster in the shadowy
mirror of his brother's eyes.
He spread chocolates melted
in the oven of his palm
up his arms like an ointment,
and soon he was gone.
Skloot is generous with his exposition and epigraphs in each of these narratives, and readers will feel neither excluded nor snubbed for not being intimately familiar with the lives of these individuals.
The book does not consist entirely of portraits, however, and Skloot's method is not exclusively narrative. Still-lifes from the Pacific Northwest punctuate each section, but are less effective as a whole. Perhaps it is the burden of the nature poet striving to reach beyond regionalism to shake off the idealism, even the nostalgia for his own place that still trouble these pieces, which less surely investigate the natural world. If Robert Frost has immortalized New England for us, and James Still, Applachia, then Skloot's attempts to similarly offer the vistas of the Pacific Northwest fall short in this transcendent quality. Generally lacking conflict, they depend too heavily on "Lean dusky Alaskan geese nibbling grass / seed in his field, early daffodils, three / fawns moving across his lawn in the last / of afternoon light" (from "Gift") and "a white horse wearing half / its winter coat shivers / in the sundown wind," (from "Beyond Grande Ronde") or "a swollen / sun pinned on the tip of Mount Hood / and bleeding alpenglow" (from "Cipole Road in Early Spring").
But the narratives themselves are fearless, and carry the book. They often blur the line between the real and the imagined interior life of the artist, particularly the artist who battles against a disease that is slowly stealing his vision. The metaphor is perhaps easy to read, and the translation from Skloot's own long struggle with illness perhaps obvious, but the unexpected combinations of action, dialogue and image show the idea anew, and with hope that radiates above the chaos and fray like the "tangerines / filling a crystal compote / on the marble-topped bar / of the Folies-Bergère / in the last large work / by Edouard Manet" who looked for and found "a sign of life / that grief would not distort" (from "The Tangerines"). So too, the Fiddler has found that sign of life in this latest work, singing best through the voice of others.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002